Review: The World Before Us, Aislinn Hunter
Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us is like a cross between A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze. I was drawn to the Victorian setting and the dual story line, contrasting the mysteries of an 1870s mental asylum and manor house with the discoveries a museum employee makes in the present day. The interplay of past and present is intriguing, but there is a lot of superfluous detail and the experimental narration is off-putting. Ultimately, I was disappointed with what I hoped would become a new favorite Victorian pastiche.
Main character Jane Standen works at the fictional Chester Museum in London (perhaps based on a Victorian collection like Sir John Soane’s). Alas, the museum is closing down in two weeks, so Jane and her colleagues spend their time boxing the treasures up and preparing to move on. Jane “is a good archivist, has a willingness to navigate history, to consider its blank pages. But history is tricky. Jane thinks it is a buffer, a static place that sits obediently between now and then…History is shifty; it looks out for itself, moves when you least expect it.” This is certainly true of Whitmore Hospital and Inglewood House, two Yorkshire landmarks she researched for her graduate degree. Both places still haunt her, almost literally.
You see, Jane has a dark secret: about 20 years ago, she babysat for Lily, the five-year-old daughter of celebrated botanist William Eliot. Only 15 at the time, Jane was half in love with Eliot, but the tie between them was severed when Lily went missing at a Yorkshire grotto while she was under Jane’s care. The little girl was never found. Now, as the Chester enters its last week in existence, Jane runs into Eliot again: he’s giving a keynote lecture after winning the Chesterwood book prize (modeled after the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction) for his survey of Victorian plant hunters, The Lost Gardens of England.
Jane isn’t sure what to expect from this meeting, but she never guesses Eliot will not even recognize her. Furious that he could forget her when Lily’s disappearance is the defining moment of her life, she slaps him and quickly leaves. Dropping her cell phone back home and picking up her dog and some clothes, she leaves London for Yorkshire. Here she registers at a B&B under a fake name so she can continue her research on the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics and poke around Inglewood House, currently undergoing restoration.
All through, Hunter has been interweaving sections describing events linking the Whitmore and Inglewood in the 1870s. Indeed, the novel opens with a visit a few of the inmates – Leeson, Herschel, and a mysterious female referred to as ‘N’ – pay to George Farrington’s manor house, documented by a chiding letter he sent to the caretakers. The peek into a Victorian asylum is eye-opening; some of the patients sound distressingly normal, like “Eliza Woodward, 22,” whose symptomatic activities include: “Disobeys her father. Invents mischief…Will go out without a bonnet…Has fits of laughing, crying and kissing people.”
There are other historical connections. For instance, Edmund Chester, the museum founder, makes a brief appearance, and his wife Charlotte is having an affair with Farrington’s brother, Norvill. Norvill gets caught up in a shooting accident involving one of the asylum inmates, and the one witness, ‘N,’ a servant girl, is sent away to secure a cover-up. This all happens very near to the grotto where Lily Eliot disappears a century or so later. As Jane continues her research into what happened at the Whitmore, using her false name to gain access to Inglewood and taking up with Blake, a 19-year-old builder, she circles closer to answers about what happened in the 1870s, but no nearer to an understanding of her own loss.
The historical encounter that inspired the novel is based on a real event: inmates from Witley Hospital, where poet John Clare was a patient, turned up at Alfred Tennyson’s house in October 1877 (an element of The Quickening Maze). Around the poles of two girls’ disappearances some 100 years apart, the novel explores loss and the sometimes treacherous workings of memory. The problem is that the novel never really goes anywhere or makes any great revelations. We learn who N is but it doesn’t seem to matter; we get the full story about Lily’s disappearance but that doesn’t seem to explain Jane any better. There is no resolution to the William Eliot debacle, and consequently no clue to how Jane will go on with her life.
Also problematic is that the novel is narrated in the first-person plural, a perspective I often enjoy but here found distracting. “Memory being what it is, we sometimes remember backwards, or sideways, or inside out,” remark the Whitmore ghosts, known by their identities in life, such as “the theologian,” “the idiot,” “the girl,” and so on. They bicker among themselves and report their observations on Jane’s behavior. In some caves in the French Dordogne, a guide said to Jane, “You were surrounded this whole time” by bison cave paintings, and the same is true for the spirits. Though there is something deliciously creepy about that statement, the overall effect of the point-of-view is to create distance from Jane.
I would have liked more scenes to be set at the Chester Museum, or in the archives in Yorkshire. Byatt’s Possession masterfully links past and present, but Hunter doesn’t quite get the balance right here. There is far too much detail about the Victorian locations, most of it superfluous to the storyline, and the lack of resolution in the present-day plot is frustrating. It’s the Canadian author’s second novel, but this felt to me very much like a debut, with the first-person plural narration marking a consciously ‘literary’ tactic that backfires. Still, for a lover of all things Victorian, it is pleasant to spend a bit of time in 1870s Yorkshire.
The World Before Us releases in the U.S. on March 31st. With thanks to Hogarth Press for allowing me early access to the novel via Edelweiss.